Wedding gown again plays key role in NJT production

New Jewish Theatre’s production of ‘I Now Pronounce’ (coming May 15). PHOTO: Eric Woolsey

BY ELLEN FUTTERMAN, EDITOR

Weddings, while usually joyous occasions, can also generate more than their fair share of stress, including the bride’s decision about what to wear on the big day. Google wedding dress and stress, and more than 100 million results come back. 

Popular TV shows like “Say Yes to the Dress,” “Bridezillas” and “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding,” among others, have capitalized on this stress, often focusing on the bride’s choice of dress and its journey down the aisle. More often than not, family and friends feel the need to weigh in on this decision, regardless of whether their opinion was solicited or not.

Well it isn’t all that different when it comes to creating wedding dresses for the theater. Just ask Michele Friedman Siler, who has designed dresses and other attire for six of the seven weddings featured in plays at the New Jewish Theatre.

“In my 19 NJT seasons alone, we have run the gamut from modern yet traditional brides (‘From Door to Door’) to hip, edgy brides (‘Time Stands Still,’ which was staged last month) to happy turn-of-the-century brides (‘Yentl’) to an expert seamstress of a similar era who carefully chooses the lace for her wedding dress that leads to heartbreak (‘Intimate Apparel’),” Siler said.

“And, of course, we can’t forget the three brides – one young and traditional, two middle-age and funky – in ‘My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding.’ ”

NJT’s upcoming play, which closes the 2018-19 season, is “I Now Pronounce,” about a wedding that culminates with a death. As a result, the reception spins into chaos with flower girls running amok, members of the bridal party questioning their own flailing relationships and everyone ordering blue drinks. You know, just another Saturday night wedding at Westwood CC.

“I Now Pronounce” calls for another wedding dress. And this time, the bride wears the dress throughout the entire production.

“We went through tons of bridal magazines for inspiration, starting last fall,” said Edward Coffield, 55, artistic director of NJT, who is directing the show.

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“It seemed pretty clear that she would have a traditional dress. The other thing we knew from the text was that the wedding color is a deep cobalt blue. That seems to be the big wedding color for 2019. Then we had to think about what goes with cobalt.”

Coffield and Siler said they got lucky when Town & Country Bridal and Formalwear donated a bunch of wedding attire to NJT because the shop was moving to a new location. Nevertheless, alterations needed to be made so that the dress not only fit the actress but also allowed her to move around the stage with ease. So Siler added straps, took the dress in and hemmed it a tad.

“The dress is a little shorter than it probably would be in real life, but this is a comedy, and it’s physical,” Coffield said. “Then we needed to deal with the bridesmaids, who are different shapes and sizes,” Siler added. They are in the same color, but very different styles. Their dresses also help tell the story because each has a completely different personality. It’s a way to communicate something about the character without any lines.”

Coffield said most directors usually look to a play’s script to figure out how to dress a bride. Take the play, “Intimate Apparel,” for example, a period piece set in 1905 that NJT staged in 2017 with Gary Wayne Barker directing. 

As Siler pointed out, the play’s wedding scene is a huge plot point, and Barker knew exactly how he wanted it to unfold. 

The play’s main character, an African-American seamstress, finds a mutual attraction with an Orthodox Jewish shopkeeper, but both realize the impossibility of marrying the other. So when the seamstress decides to marry a laborer from Barbados whom she knows only through exchanging letters, she goes to the shopkeeper to pick out material to make her wedding dress.

“When she picks fabric for the wedding gown, his heart is breaking because he loves her and he knows she is marrying someone else,” Siler said. “He tells her she has to have this special lace for the wedding dress because it was made by angels. They touch the lace together and almost touch each other.

“It’s an incredibly emotional scene, but we knew right then that we had to have lace for the dress.”

The dress also had to have buttons, she said, and lots of them, because Barker wanted the groom to unbutton the front of the dress to expose the corset the bride was wearing. 

“The scene is such where she didn’t even have 30 seconds to put the dress on in the first place, so I had to sew a big, long zipper in the back so it could be gotten in and out of easily,” said Siler, 55, who is a member of Congregation Shaare Emeth.

Zippers, hidden in plain sight, seem to be a costume designer’s best friend. So are vintage and resale shops, which Siler combs regularly for potential costumes, including bridal and formal wear. She found the perfect wedding dress at the National Council of Jewish Women Resale Shop for the NJT production of “From Door to Door,” which she then used again in “My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding.” 

“For ‘From Door to Door,’ I installed a giant parka zipper in the dress so Michelle Hand, who was the bride, could get in and out of it quickly,” Siler said. “Here was this beautiful, dainty dress with a behemoth of a zipper stitched into it.”

Siler learned to sew when she attended the Conservatory at Webster University, where she majored in scene design. She received her master’s of fine arts from University of Missouri-Kansas City, with an emphasis on costume design.

“What I like most about what I do is the collaboration,” Siler said. “Like working with Edward. We know each other so well, we have this great shorthand. I love seeing all our hard work come to life every night on stage.”


‘I Now Pronounce’

WHEN: May 15-June 2

WHERE:  Wool Studio Theatre at the New Jewish Theatre, 2 Millstone Campus Drive

HOW MUCH:$42-$45

MORE INFO:314-442-3257 or

newjewishtheatre.org